On the Russian road
Books explore the large country’s past and present
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A reader of our May 9 feature about books on China asked for a similar reading list about Russia. Keeping this to one page, here are six good books from the past seven years:
Ben Judah’s Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin (Yale University Press, 2013) colorfully recorded his travels “to places where most Western journalists never go: catching rides in the trucks of wild gold miners on the ice road between Yakutsk and Magadan. … I tried to spend as much time as possible with ordinary Russians in unglamorous places, from the grease-bars of Kaliningrad to the roadside cafeterias on Nizhny Tagil and the mini markets of Khabarovsk.” Judah’s street-level findings: Russia is in trouble.
William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department (Minotaur, 2013) novelistically shows the importance of a Biblical ethic inside a culture of lies. Captain Alexei Korolev, a 1937 Moscow criminal investigator, comprehends Communism’s endpoint: “All think the same, feel the same, chant the same name at the same time—Stalin’s name, no doubt.” But he resolves to solve crimes even when success could send him to death in Siberia. Why? Ryan writes that Korolev in his bedroom pulled the curtains shut and “pushed the blade of the knife into the crack between two boards and levered up one of them to reveal a small cavity. There it was, sitting there, the Bible.”
Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (Public Affairs, 2014) colorfully profiles the oligarchs, surrealists, and crime bosses who prey on Russia today. The book shows what happened after Western consultants during the 1990s developed “logical framework matrices” to achieve “objectively verifiable indicators of democratization” but took for granted an underlying ethic of fair treatment for all. The consultants could check off protections on paper—elections, check; freedom of expression, check; private property, check—but without an underlying Biblical ethic, those positives produced new opportunities for exploitation.
Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train (Metropolitan, 2017) shows how Germany gained temporary benefit but long-term trouble by transporting Vladimir Lenin from Switzerland back to Russia in 1917. In her last chapter she connects the dots: Ten years after the revolution, Josef Stalin is in charge and Karl Radek, Lenin’s train companion, fumes, “We’ve been absolute idiots.” Twenty years after, Stalin orders the shooting of Stefan Zinoviev, “who as a little boy in Switzerland had enchanted Lenin so much that the leader once attempted to adopt him.” Merridale rightly concludes that Lenin “sent tens of thousands to their deaths; the system he created was a stifling, cruel, sterile one, a workshop for decades of tyranny.”
Joshua Yaffa’s Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia (Random House, 2020) is a fascinating account not of the self-serving bureaucrats who maintain remnants of an evil empire, or the brave opponents who risk their lives to tell the truth, but the sometimes-cynical, sometimes-hopeful tightrope walkers in the middle. Yaffa profiles the boss of Russia’s main television channel, who kisses up to Russia’s dictator but tries to retain a slight amount of independence and occasionally help those who are braver. He describes a humanitarian in war-torn Chechnya who looks the other way to massive persecution so as to look straight at endangered children and give them hope.
Sergei Medvedev’s The Return of the Russian Leviathan (Polity, 2020) brilliantly analyzes the new wave of Russian nationalism that Vladimir Putin is surfing. It also shows the difference between Stalinism and Putinism. In the 1930s Medvedev, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, would have received “nine grams in the brain,” but now Putinists do not shoot him in the back of the head: They isolate him in academia and reserve assassination for more popular journalists. Medvedev describes Russia’s “fiasco in Ukraine” (fearing strategic encirclement by “the West,” it pushed Ukraine in that direction) and writes astringently: “The patriot’s dream has come true: Russian SU-34s are proudly flying over far-off colonial lands and dropping smart bombs on nasty men with beards.” Watch your back, Medvedev.